Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 3 of 4: Other Riders and Unexpected Challenges

RAGBRAI is a sprawling event with more than 10,000 riders criss-crossing the state of Iowa over seven consecutive days of riding. Today’s post features Tara’s observations about some of the other RAGBRAI riders as well as unexpected issues that Simon and she confronted.

Finishing in Ft. Madison
Finishing in Ft. Madison

Observations on Bikes, Riders, and What they Wore

RAGBRAI attracts just about every kind of rider and every kind of bike you can imagine. From high-end carbon fiber racers with aero bars to department store mountain bikes. We saw a few Sevens and Rivendells, one or two folding bikes, but mostly Trek and Specialized.

We saw hand-cranked recumbents, trikes, triples, and even two guys on unicycles. Although the majority of riders were on road bikes, a surprising number used hybrids and even mountain bikes with knobby tires.

The tandem pairs were also interesting to see: spouses, of course, but also several dads with small kids, as well as tandem teams of a disabled stoker paired with an able-bodied captain.

While I don’t see it in D.C., the male to female rider discrepancy was apparent at this event. Based on our observations and some discussions we had with other riders, for a lot of men in their 40s and 50s, RAGBRAI is their week away from home life to bond with buddies, drink beer, and let loose. While we saw impressively chiseled calves on some riders, most riders we saw looked like reassuringly average people.

RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa
RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa

Clothing choices provided a constant source for conversation. Simon’s Heinz Beanz jersey seemed to draw every British ex-pat to chat with us on the road. We saw a lot of RAGBRAI jerseys of varying vintage, as well as a fair number of beer-themed jerseys (even a Miller High Life jersey, which we can only hope was worn ironically).

A surprising number of riders were fully kitted out in replica Leopard-Trek RadioShack gear, which we thought was an interesting choice of a professional team to adopt. Terry and Moxie apparel were well represented among women riders.

We did see some funny outfits, particularly on the first day: a Hello Kitty themed team; a tandem bride and groom (with top hat perched on his helmet and a veil fluttering off of hers); and a group that attached fluorescent-colored zip ties to their helmets for a spiky effect. We brought one Ibex wool jersey each, but did not see another single other Ibex jersey.

While waiting in lines or on shuttle buses, another frequent topic of conversation with riders we met was the elusive “Lance sighting.” As he has done a few times previously, Lance Armstrong came to Iowa to ride the first three days of RAGBRAI. We never saw him, but we met several people who shared stories (and photographic evidence) of riding with Lance Armstrong.

Rolling hills
Rolling hills

Unexpected Challenges

Being out in the sun all day wears you out, and we learned early on that we needed to re-apply sunscreen and lip balm often, given the full sun and relative lack of shade throughout most of the ride route. After the first day of riding, the more sun-sensitive of the two of us bought sun sleeves to wear for the remainder of the week, which helped immensely.

Although we had been warned that the biggest danger on RAGBRAI was other riders, there is no real way to prepare for sharing the road safely with 10,000 other riders. On the third day, when riding to Des Moines, the crowds swelled to perhaps as many as 34,000.

It felt chaotic to be on the road with that many people, and it was hard to settle into a steady rhythm. Particularly in the mornings, we spent more time trying to avoid crashes with inexperienced or distracted riders than enjoying the scenery.

One frustration was that often the crowds were such that getting to the side of the road to take a photo of a scenic vista just wasn’t worth the trouble. The later in the day it got, and as the ride travelled further east later in the week, the crowds thinned out and it was easier for us to ride along at our own pace and really enjoy the ride.

The underlying theme of our whole week, however, was the complete and total lack of sleep we were getting in camp. We had every form of nightly disruption you can imagine: car alarms, heavy snorers in nearby tents, hail and thunderstorms resulting in wet tents, freight trains, and the din of the nightly concert only blocks away.

Bikes along the railroad tracks in Knoxville
Bikes along the railroad tracks in Knoxville

Despite wearing the recommended ear plugs, we would wake up after about an hour of sleeping, and then be unable to fall back asleep. By far the worst night of sleep was in Knoxville. Our tent was no more than ten feet from a freight train line.

That wasn’t even the worst part, since only one freight train went by that night. The campsite was also across the street from a bar with a DJ and pulsing dance music that vibrated our air mattress. The party went on until 3am, when the police finally shut them down. Without our one quiet night of sleep in a hotel in Des Moines, I’m not sure we would have survived the entire week.

We were not the only ones caught out by record low temperatures at night. Coming from the mid-Atlantic, it was hard to imagine that a sleeping bag would be needed on a July evening, but our thin sheets and sweatshirts we brought were not enough to keep us warm, adding to our difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Next: Despite some of the discomforts, RAGBRAI also has a lot to offer a rider. And the ultimate question: would they do it again?

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